CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Atlanta Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said a few subtle but impactful words last week that didn’t go unnoticed by the players.
Ulbrich, who has helped orchestrate the team’s dramatic defensive turnaround over the last 2 1/2 games while assisting with the playcalling, stood in front of the media last Wednesday and spoke about having an opportunity to create a unique comeback story that people are going to want to listen to after a 1-7 start. The same message was discussed among the team, of course.
“Yeah, we’ve talked about it," said safety and captain Ricardo Allen. "A lot of people would have given up on the season. A lot of people would have given up and just tucked it in and not fight the way that we’ve been fighting."
The Falcons, now 3-7, certainly have landed a few uppercuts after the bye -- putting together a two-game winning streak against the mighty New Orleans Saints (8-2) and struggling Carolina Panthers (5-5) without allowing a touchdown. The sudden surge has pleased owner Arthur Blank, who praised the coaches and players for correcting some of the glaring issues.
"We've had two great games in a row," Blank told ESPN after Sunday’s 29-3 beatdown of the Panthers. “It was great to see all three phases step it up. Our defense has been really spectacular the last two weeks. Eleven sacks in the last two games, and four picks today, so that's about as well as we can play on defense. I think the whole team has done a great job, players and coaches. We've got to keep it up."
But it’s too early to say if the sudden surge is enough to save coach Dan Quinn’s job, with so much more to accomplish over the next six weeks. Quinn, who wore quite a smile after Sunday's win, isn’t focused on his job status. The players certainly want to win for him and for themselves.
“If we just keep doing like we’re doing right now ... I’m just not really scared of people," Allen said of upcoming opponents. "I’ve never been scared of nobody. If we keep playing the way that we’ve been playing -- offense, defense and special teams put together -- I know that’s the team that we’ve always wanted to be. That’s the team that we believe we can be. That’s why we were so shocked about how the season was going early."
It’s still a long shot for the Falcons to become the first-ever team to rebound from a 1-7 start to make the playoffs. In fact, no team in the Super Bowl era has ever recovered from such a start to boast a winning record, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Two teams have come back to finish at .500: the 1974 New York Jets (7-7) and the 1984 Green Bay Packers (8-8). But that won’t stop the Falcons from believing they can complete a historic turnaround.
"That’s the plan," cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “We obviously didn’t start how we wanted to. But at the end of the day, it’s a marathon. That’s why it’s a 16-game season. We’ve got six games left, so the ball is in our court. We just have to come out here and execute and we can still be where we want to be."
Could the 3-7 Falcons run the table? The odds are against them with 9-1 San Francisco and 8-2 New Orleans remaining on the schedule, although the Falcons already obliterated the Saints, 26-9 in New Orleans. Next up is 3-7 Tampa Bay at home Sunday.
Would a 3-0 start against NFC South opponents point to the Falcons being the NFC South’s best?
“If we can do that, yeah, but let’s take it one game at a time," Allen said. "I would love to do that. I would love to be the best team in this division."
The Saints remain the favorite, but sweeping the division rival with a Thanksgiving night win would speak volumes about the Falcons’ resolve. Everyone knew the offense was capable with quarterback Matt Ryan -- who moved into 10th place on the NFL's all-time passing list on Sunday -- wide receiver Julio Jones a matchup nightmare, and receiver Calvin Ridley an emerging star. On the flip side, tight end Austin Hooper (MCL)and running back Devonta Freeman (foot) are battling back from injuries.
But it’s been the rejuvenated defense that has sparked the turnaround. The Falcons have 13 sacks, 25 quarterback hits and four interceptions over the last three games while not allowing a touchdown since DK Metcalf's 2-yard touchdown reception from Russell Wilson 27 before halftime of Seattle’s 27-20 win over the Falcons in Week 8.
Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has been his typical disruptive self. Defensive end Vic Beasley, who was dangled as trade bait before the trade deadline, is playing inspired football knowing 31 other teams are watching him before he becomes a free agent. Of course, much has been made of assistant head coach Raheem Morris moving over from wide receivers to the secondary and assisting Ulbrich with the defensive playcalling. And the emergence of rookie Kendall Sheffield at cornerback has caused Isaiah Oliver to step up his game.
But Allen pointed to another factor that has helped turn around the defense: moving playmaker Damontae Kazee back to free safety from nickelback. Kazee filled in for the injured Allen last season at free safety and tied for the league lead with seven interceptions.
“You know Kazee being able to get back at his natural position, when we’re doing it as that, we’ve got our best five [DBs] on the field," Allen said. "I can go down to strong safety and I can play it all. And Kazee, who is a really good free safety, he knows how to get the frickin' ball, which a free safety should be able to do.
"I think him going back to free safety, it just makes us versatile. They don’t understand where the blitz is coming from. They don’t understand who is covering the back. They don’t understand who is covering the slot because we all can do it. So quarterbacks can’t really figure us out. Yeah, him being back there does help."
Now, the Falcons have to keep the momentum going. Finishing with the best record in the division doesn’t mean they’ll be in the playoff picture. In 2014, they finished 5-1 in the NFC South but 6-10 overall with no postseason. That year, Carolina won the division at 7-8-1 and 4-2.
It’s not about the past. It’s not about what happened through the first eight games. It’s about what the Falcons can accomplish over the next six weeks.
"I think we can keep going, keep building on it," Allen said. "There’s good stuff on the film. There’s bad stuff on the film. Learn from it all, wins and losses. I think the sky’s the limit."